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Threepenny Opera, The
Talk about an improved restoration! Criterion's old laserdisc of this title was one of the company's biggest disappointments, a jittery, blurry, dark transfer that encouraged us to believe that the original movie was hopelessly lost. The new DVD of The Threepenny Opera is a visual and aural makeover as stunning as Criterion's earlier releases of Fritz Lang's "M" and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Based on a new film restoration by a German archive, this stunning disc makes the Brecht/Weill collaboration into an entirely new experience.
The Threepenny Opera is a wicked satire on crime, sin, capitalism and politics by artists whose political leanings would soon put them at risk in Nazi Germany. Although set in turn-of-the-century England, the biting German song lyrics cut like a knife, especially when sung by the slum divas played by Carola Neher and Lotte Lenya. The jazzy Kurt Weill score is some of the most exciting music of the 20th century, evoking the world of Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife), an urban gangster who wears a bowler hat and spats on his shoes when he struts like a peacock through his illegal domain. The song Mack the Knife comes from this show, but Bobby Darin's finger-snapping swinger version pales next to the tympani and reed-section Deutsche original.
The world of 1900 London is filtered through the cynical world-view of Berlin in the late 1920s to become an intoxicating cultural brew. Fritz Arno Wagner's camera takes us to the quayside where a Street Singer (Ernst Busch) relates the bloody crimes of the infamous Mackie Messer. The gangster is standing right there, happily listening to the account of his rapes and murders. G. W. Pabst's moving camera roams through wonderful dusty-gray crooked streets and smoky beer halls, where we meet the foolish women and clumsy thieves of Mackie's world. Mackie sees no need to panic when he hears that a manhunt has been called for him. He goes straight to the brothel to think about his problem.
The songs of The Threepenny Opera are sly, melodic and powerful. Polly Peachum stands in her wedding dress and explains why she's turned down a score of decent suitors to instead favor the thoroughly rotten Mackie. The frustrated Jenny Diver squares her shoulders and imagines herself a lady pirate, taking out her hatred on the world by slaughtering a whole town. When Tiger Brown comes back to Mackie to return the crook's purloined bail money, Mackie is inspired to share a jolly song about the bloody adventures they had in India, indiscriminately killing natives whether white or colored. And the Street Singer returns periodically with melancholy reprises expressing the hopelessness of life in the city's underbelly, where the only way one can live is to exploit one's fellow man. The Threepenny Opera ends similarly to Pabst's silent Pandora's Box, with defeated figures disappearing into the darkness of the London streets. The Street Singer's final words lament the little people whose miseries no one hears.
The Threepenny Opera has been criticized as being shapeless, and for failing to adapt the play into filmic terms. Essayist Tony Rayns explains the odd set of artistic and proprietary arguments (some of them ideological in nature) that got in the way of the film version; new information has come to light that the real author of the play's book may be Bertolt Brecht's girlfriend Elisabeth Hauptmann, credited only as the translator of the original English The Beggar's Opera for the play version. The business with buying a bank to legally plunder society was a later change demanded by Brecht. The stage ending had Mackie Messer saved from the gallows like MacHeath in The Beggar's Opera. The filmmakers won the right to make the film their way, but then incorporated many of Brecht's ideas anyway. Pabst's direction of The Threepenny Opera is both stylish and highly atmospheric, and only occasionally suffers from odd continuity cuts. 1
Rudolf Forster is appropriately cold and imperious as Mackie Messer, the cock 'o the walk in Soho. We see him give the cops the slip but no violent crimes happen on screen. Beautiful Carola Neher has a stunning voice; finally hearing and seeing her sing clearly is like jumping into a time machine to a lost civilization, before Hitler wiped out a generation's worth of German creativity. The biggest attraction is the secondary female lead Jenny Diver. As played by Lotte Lenya, 'Pirate Jenny' is simply stunning, a bundle of raw talent and unstoppable energy. Lenya was from a frighteningly rough background, and she projects so much life through her face and body that she makes herself beautiful by sheer will power.
Favorite actor Vladimir Sokoloff (For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Magnificent Seven) has a nice bit as a prison guard, looking much younger than we're used to seeing him.
As noted above, Criterion's DVD of The Threepenny Opera is a wonder of restoration; it is no longer necessary to squint beyond an unstable image and indecipherable audio to imagine what an original screening might have been like. Producer Issa Clubb leads off the extras with an authoritative commentary by scholars David Bathrick and Eric Rentschler and a new minidocu explains the basic story of the transformation of play into movie. Fritz Rasp and Ernst Busch appear in an East German prologue for a late-1940s reissue, where the scripted patter has them stress the film's harmony with Communist ideals.
A second disc contains an entire second feature, the French version L'opera de quat'sous directed simultaneously by Pabst on the same sets and with some of the same actors. The leads look more like conventional musical comedy stars and the actress playing Lotte Lenya's role hasn't a tenth of the impact. But the direction is almost identical and the French translations of the songs are very interesting. The print quality isn't as beautiful as the German version, but it isn't bad either. Film scholar Charles O'Brien contributes a feature comparison of the two versions. An elderly Fritz Rasp appears again to talk about his entire career in film, including his work with Fritz Lang. Galleries of art designs and stills from both film versions are included. The insert booklet essay by Tony Rayns is informative and entertaining, and explains the sometimes-contradictory Bertolt Brecht in terms we can better understand.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Threepenny Opera rates:
Supplements: see above
Packaging: two discs in Keep case
Reviewed: September 22, 2007
1. Yes, yes, crossing the 180º line is no longer considered a mortal sin, John Ford does it all the time, etc. When Pabst does it, both here and in Pandora's Box, we frequently wonder who's talking to whom, or whether we've suddenly cut to an image in a mirror, or to a different scene.
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